Gateway Tunnel needed as rail ridership will grow even under most conservative predictions, report says

Published: Jun. 15, 2022

Even under the most conservative scenario, projecting up to 50% of Manhattan office employees working from home and a sluggish job market, rail ridership between New Jersey and New York will still grow, making the Gateway Tunnel a necessity, according to a new report by the Regional Plan Association.

Despite decreases in commuter rail ridership caused by the COVID pandemic, the need to build two new rail tunnels under the Hudson and to rehabilitate the existing ones still remains. The tunnels will be needed to serve employees working a hybrid schedule, to move those who can’t work remote and to serve a growing number of those coming in and out of New York City outside of work, the study found.

The report was released during a press conference held Wednesday at Penn Station New York.

“We were surprised by the result that said, even under the most pessimistic assumption, which is low national growth and high (numbers of employees who are) working from home, you still find yourself back to 2019 (ridership) levels by the time the project is done, and at least 15% higher by mid-century,” association President and CEO Tom Wright said after the press event.

The study ran four ridership scenarios, and found that even under conservative estimates, trans-Hudson travel will increase to 428,376 people by 2030, and steadily grow to 487,673 by 2050. The two most optimistic scenarios show trans-Hudson ridership surpassing the 2019 high of 465,763 by 2030, the report showed. Two more optimistic scenarios have ridership reaching between 480,000 and 490,000 riders per day by 2030.

The two most conservative scenarios assumed the amount of time the average office worker would work from home would increase to 50%, and the region would have a low rate of job growth. The report took projections out to 2070 because of the 100-year life span the new and rehabilitated tunnels are expected to have.

The report also said the number of hybrid employees commuting across the Hudson River, who would most likely travel to work on “peak” days – Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays, would surpass 2019 levels by 2040 and continue to increase.

Finally, there are a large number of commuters who will still need to be on site at their jobs every day they work, and non-work trips will continue to increase faster than work trips. NJ Transit weekend ridership has rebounded faster than weekday ridership for many months, the agency reported.

Projected housing growth in northern New Jersey also will fuel ridership increases, which would become the highest growth in the region after Manhattan, according to the report.

Another factor that will drive increased rail ridership is that trans-Hudson River car crossings are already at capacity, resulting in more people turning to rail, the report stated.

Officials from the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition, which has lobbied for the direct rail service to and from Manhattan that the tunnels would make possible, cited the pent up demand for that service, being seen in numerous residential development along that line.

“With the continued growth of transit oriented development in many of the towns along the line, the number of our residents who will be traveling to and from New York is only going to grow,” said Bruce Bergen, Raritan Valley Rail Coalition chairman. “It is long past the time for the transit system to be upgraded to accommodate the development that has, and will, continue to take place.”

Riders of other NJ Transit rail lines in Bergen County that lack direct service to Manhattan would benefit from the tunnel after construction of a loop track in Secaucus and an addition to Penn Station New York to accommodate extra trains.

Delaying the project could mean a return to the bad old days when commuters were stranded in Penn Station because of tunnel infrastructure issues, said Felicia Park-Rogers, Regional Infrastructure Projects director for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

“It’s about fixing antiquated track, it’s about mobility, it’s about the economy, it’s about making mass transit great again,” she said, urging officials to “seize the moment and the momentum” on Gateway.

Construction of new tunnels and rehabilitation of the existing tunnels is estimated to be completed in 2035, Gateway Development Commission officials said last November.

However, the findings also were delivered with a caution. New York and New Jersey have a limited window to reach a formal agreement on how the states will fund the 50% local share of the $12.3 billion Tunnel project. That memorandum of understanding is a key part to obtain federal grants.

Federal funding could be as much as $5.6 billion, or approximately 44% of the cost to build two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River and rehabilitate the existing 111-year old tunnels. Amtrak would fund $1.4 billion, and also has purchased Manhattan property needed for the project. The state governments of New Jersey and New York would fund up to $6 billion, through low interest, long-term railroad infrastructure loans.

Wright called the leadership by the governors and other officials in both states as “extraordinary, coupled with the USDOT taking a fresh look at the project and re-ranking it to qualify for federal funds.

“We’ve been seeing leadership and we want to show that the data shows they are right,” he said. “We need to get a memorandum of understanding (between the states) signed and get the project going right away.”

Several speakers also expressed concern that the midterm elections could change the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and Congress. At the moment, the bi-state congressional delegation is united in its support of the project, and has the seniority to get discretionary funding for the project. That “window of opportunity is closing, Wright warned.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-16 03:20:04 -0700